Living with a reactive dog isn’t easy. Walking is chaos, everyone is upset, we end up arguing with strangers and our poor stressed dog simultaneously drives us mad and breaks our heart. The entire thing can be made a lot less stressful for everyone by really knowing your dog, his capacity to cope and realising that sometimes the rules can be bent or even broken.
What is Reactivity?
Reactivity is reaction. We all react multiple times a day to multiple things. If we are within emotional, physical and spiritual balance we usually have a healthy reaction. Being in balance means that we are resilient and able to cope with stressors. If we are out of balance, we are less able to cope and it only takes one occurrence to begin an imbalance.
Imbalance is stress and sometimes a stressor comes and goes, we cope and re-balance. Sometimes though, for personal or environmental reasons we can’t re-balance. It’s possible to stay imbalanced for many years, until it manifests in physical illness.
Dogs that are reactive are imbalanced. They suffer greatly when they experience the trigger of their fear or stress. When we don’t understand what is happening, we can often maintain that imbalance by forcing to dog to face the trigger time and again. The veterinary description for the consequence of this, is long term stress.
What Can We Do?
The first thing we must do is remove all exposure to the trigger and increase the exact opposite experience in order to gently rebalance the dog. If this means no walks, then so be it. If a dog gets stressed on walks but is happy at home, spend a couple of weeks at home with much enrichment activity and mental stimulation.
Next, we observe the dog to be sure he is becoming more balanced. Watch the body language, does he look happy, is he relaxed? Imagine him like a set of scales and realise that whilst a reactive response is the tipping point, you are aiming to make him feel like he need never react to anything by removing exposure to his fears. You are aiming for resilience. You are reducing the stress hormones in his body.
When resilience in your staged, trigger limited, environment is achieved is the only point of deciding where to go next. We can re-introduce our re-balanced dog back to the triggers, gradually in a manner that he can cope. Think bubbles or make the decision to change his lifestyle in another way, by keeping stressors low and meeting his needs in a less traditional manner. (i.e. avoiding the traditional Sunday afternoon park walk).
The key point is that we do exactly what the individual dog needs us to, to help him to re-balance and build resilience. Whilst we can ask for advice from experienced people and so we should, we just take the bits we need.
To re-balance and build resilience in dog that we love dearly, we must really communicate directly with that dog.